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For Americans the fourth Thursday of November holds special significance.
Since I moved to Paris more than a few years ago, this holiday, more than any of the others, draws Americans together in a unified pursuit of cooking and eating turkey. And for giving thanks for many things, including living in France. It’s a festive occasion that’s usually accompanied by a selection of wines.
We don’t necessarily give thanks only once. It’s a double-whammy since American expats frequently have the chance to eat two dinners, one on the real day and the second on the following Saturday, since Thursday is a school and workday. Even though the French really like Americans and they cherish holidays, the French government hasn’t told people it’s okay to take the day off and expect to be paid. Few corporations give American employees the day off either, since if you’re in France, you do as the French do and you probably have plenty of vacation.
In this world of change and progress, finding a turkey that’s big enough to feed a group is no longer a do-or-die challenge. Small grocery stores don’t necessarily stock +8 kilo dindes, but they’re available at large Parisian stores, such as Monoprix and Carrefour. It’s no longer necessary to place a special order weeks before chez le boucher, which was invariably so expensive you could have bought a filet de boeuf.
Snaring bags of unsalted pecans and molasses used to necessitate going to specialized “American” stores and paying a small fortune for these “exotic” foods, but that’s no longer the case. If there is an item you need, there’s always The Real McCoy or Thanksgiving to the food-chase rescue.
One of the most memorable dinners I ever hosted was so long ago that airfares were cheap(er), security at airports was casual, and the airlines didn’t charge for extra bags, and so my mother could arrive from Washington with a Butterball turkey stashed in a Styrofoam chest and with suitcases crammed with cranberry jelly, pumpkin puree, sweet potatoes, and bags of Pepperidge Farms stuffing mix. I’m not sure I’d want to eat like that now, but at the time it was amazing…
And it’s still amazing to me that mother made it through French customs lugging a frozen turkey into a country that prides itself on producing the best for the table. Well, she said something about the officers commenting on her beautiful eyes—and who could say no to a mother?—but smuggling is smuggling, and it’s a miracle we didn’t all die from botulism and (possibly) from all of those hormones that went into making the turkey a Butterball. Stuffing 20 people into our apartment, including American friends who were geographic orphans, plus a few French friends, who were incredulous at the sheer mass of the turkey, is what made this holiday special.
Thinking of turkey in the past I remember one year when a friend, who worked at the American Embassy in Paris, bought a big one for us at the commissary. When I finally decided to go native, we had to buy two French turkeys in order to feed the troops, who’d gathered chez nous, les Américains. That was the year my husband shuttled between our fourth floor apartment to the gardienne’s on the ground floor. Maria was kind enough to let us use her oven and we were undoubtedly the laugh of the building. After all, how often do you see a grown man, wearing an apron, holding a poultry-baster and a thermometer, going up and down in an elevator every 20 minutes?
That year I learned that French turkeys tasted so much better and might even be considered a delicacy, having escaped sitting in freezer containers for months. I also learned that we really didn’t need two turkeys because our friends were thoroughly French and ate less meat. In subsequent years, the meals became very much more French even though it’s easy to buy (practically) everything American in Paris now. Alisa Morov of Sweet Pea Baking & Catering, and a cookbook author, helped clarify why we don’t need super-big turkeys. “People don’t do leftovers here, and most people don’t have the space to store leftovers. Refrigerators and freezers are commonly puny compared to the big American version.”
Actually, it’s hard not to be confronted with American products. Forget McDo’s— hamburgers are an everyday staple on French menus, bagels are easily available and chocolate chip cookies and muffins can be purchased at many Parisian bakeries. Morov added, “When Philadelphia Cream Cheese became a standard at every Monoprix, Franprix and on-line market delivery service, at the same price as Fromage à tartiner— under 2€ for 150grams, my life improved here… the French are no longer eschewing all things American. Oreos are also a regularly stocked item.”
In fact they seem to be chewing them up. Cupcakes are very much in vogue here. Go figure. It’s a testimonial to the internet and the fact the French appear to be more American than many Americans—yes, they’re gaining weight, too.
But wait: When I cook Thanksgiving dinner for my family, who live in Washington, it has definite traces of French cuisine. Is it a question of mixed identity? Perhaps. But, one thing that’s certain, no matter where I am, there will be some people, who’d otherwise be alone and French wine. After all, loyalty and a sense of togetherness are the most important aspects of this holiday.
Wishing all of our readers a warm Thanksgiving surrounded by family and friends.
© Karen Fawcett
Karen Fawcett is President of Paris New Media, LLC